Happy Fat Tuesday. I’m feeling the extra weight from last weekend’s pre-Mardi Gras dinner party with friends. Any holiday is an occasion to celebrate with food. But when it’s Creole or Cajun food that’s associated with it, you don’t want to miss out.
This gumbo was actually served up with plump, pink Gulf shrimp at the party. But when leftovers were taken out the next day, it looked like we had picked them all out. That’s no fun. So for an encore, I threw in some squid tentacles as it was heating back up. I am not sure why I haven’t seen squid or calamari in any classic recipes for this or any seafood etouffés from down South. They eat critters like crawfish (aka crayfish or crawdads) heads and all out of the shell, so it can’t be that strange, right? (See Green Factor below for more reason to use squid, too.)
Besides, I’m no purist nor am I in N’Awlins. But it was fun to channel the spirit of the city for a night (and for leftover encores the following week). Like a stone soup, the leftovers have been growing as more things are tossed into them and together, so I may be netting neutral rather than eating them up. Doesn’t Mardi Gras last for two weeks anyway?
Still, I have a feeling that some people may be offended by this leftover shrimp-squid substitute in the gumbo, so I’ll be the first to say that I don’t mean to mess with nobody’s toot toot. And that you can use either/or, since both these types of seafood should be added in the last minutes of cooking the gumbo to stay succulent without overcooking and becoming tough. But you should really use both, and with shrimp, you can make a quick stock from the shells that’ll give this gumbo lots of flavor. No whole shrimp in the shells, no cheap and easy stock. You’ll have to buy seafood stock otherwise—so if you have the time to peel and devein (and save a few bucks), get whole shrimp if you can to get the full shrimpy flavor.
And a lot of other flavors, too. It can be difficult to find the proper ingredients for Creole recipes if you’re not in Louisiana. Andouille sausages evaded me throughout a handful of butcher shops I scoped out in NYC. I eventually found a pack of the French-Cajun sausage links made by the local artisanal charcuterie maker Brooklyn Cured, ironically. And it’s only been in recent years that I’ve been able to find a good source for Gulf shrimp up here, too. I was surprised to find fresh catfish from the US South (rather than Asia) at a fishmonger in NYC, too, and “blackened” a bunch of fillets with Old Bay for another course. Maybe it won’t be too long before we can get our hands on crawfish to boil.
I geeked out reading numerous recipes for gumbo, in books dating back to the 1950s and recipes online. The one main difference that I found between recipes pre-1980s and today is that boneless chicken tends to be preferred nowadays, to save you the trouble of taking out the chicken pieces, shredding the meat off, and adding it back into the pot. I said hogwash and went with the older method. Some recipes use different spice blends and swear by filé powder, a ground herb, but some did not. Some asked for canned tomatoes and others had just a couple chopped fresh ones. Some—too many—modern recipes eschew okra entirely, the dish’s namesake. And then there’s a whole separate species of gumbos that are green. But the unifying themes of most if not all gumbos were a rich, dark roux, a Holy Trinity of onion, celery and green pepper, cayenne pepper and Andouille sausage.
No, not one gumbo recipe nor utterance of it I’ve ever come across had anything to do with squid. But that’s usually reason to do—rather than not to do—something in my kitchen. In the end, the squid looked so crazy, poking out of the pot and the plate of rice it was ladled onto, that I had to share. Mardi Gras is about making noise, going wild and looking outlandish, anyway. While no breasts were flashed at the party in exchange for a string of plastic beads, I think we tried to capture that energy. For dessert, we fried up some beignets to serve with coffee ice cream. And although it wasn’t a proper King Cake a la Mardi Gras dessert tradition, we did stuff one of them with a little surprise; the idea is that whoever gets the piece of cake with the toy inside has to host the next party. So hopefully we’ll all have another try at it soon.
Gumbo with Chicken, Shrimp & Calamari
(makes 6-8 servings)
1 lb shrimp with shells
4 chicken leg and thigh quarters
1 tablespoon olive oil
Old Bay seasoning
4 tablespoons butter (or rendered fat from bacon, duck, pork, chicken)
4 tablespoons flour
1 large onion, chopped
1 large green pepper, chopped
1-2 celery stalks (and leaves if available), chopped
4 cloves garlic, minced
4 fresh tomatoes, chopped
½ teaspoon cayenne pepper
2 links Andouille sausage (or substitute with kielbasa), chopped or sliced
2 bay leaves
1 lb fresh okra (or substitute with about 4 cups frozen, sliced okra)
salt and pepper to taste
Tabasco sauce to taste
½ lb cleaned squid, cut to rings and whole tentacles
rice for serving
fresh chopped scallions for serving (optional)
Peel and devein the shrimp. Place the shells in a pot with 8 cups of cold water and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cover. Cook for 30 minutes to 1 hour while you prepare the rest. Rub the peeled and deveined shrimp with about ¼ teaspoon of Old Bay and set aside and chill.
Meanwhile, sprinkle the chicken quarters with ½ teaspoon Old Bay seasoning and rub all over. Heat the tablespoon of oil in a large, heavy pot, such as a Dutch oven. Once oil is very hot, place down the chicken quarters and let brown for about 2 minutes before turning to brown the opposite sides, about 2 more minutes. Remove chicken from pan and set aside. In the same pot, add the 4 tablespoons of butter and flour each and heat over low heat. Stirring, melt the butter and incorporate the flour thoroughly. Continue cooking, stirring frequently, over low heat while the mixture bubbles and thickens, and eventually turns a chestnut brown (about 10 minutes).
Add the Andouille sausage, chopped onion, pepper, celery, garlic, cayenne pepper and cook, stirring occasionally, 2-3 minutes, over medium heat. Add the chopped tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, another 2-3 minutes.
Return the chicken to the pot and add the bay leaves. Strain the shrimp shells from its stock and pour the hot stock into the pot—you should have at 6 cups (add more water to the pot to cover the chicken entirely if not). Stir well and bring to a boil. Bring to a simmer and cover. Cook for 45 minutes-1 hour.
Remove the chicken quarters from the pot and let cool about 10 minutes or until cool enough to handle. Remove the bones from the chicken and add the boneless meat back to the pot (it can be in big clumps). Stir in the okra (the sauce will thicken immediately). Cook for another 5-10 minutes and taste for seasoning, adding salt, pepper, Old Bay, cayenne pepper, or Tabasco sauce.
Finally, rub the cleaned and chopped squid with a pinch of Old Bay. Bring the gumbo to a boil and drop in the shrimp and stir. Bring the pot back to a boil and drop in the calamari. Once the seafood has turned opaque, about 1 minute, taste for seasoning once again and serve with rice and the chopped scallions for garnish.
(for 6-8 servings)
4 chicken leg quarters (at $4/lb): $8.00
1 lb shrimp (at $22/lb): $22.00
½ lb cleaned squid (at $8/lb): $4.00
4 Tb butter: $1.00
1 onion: $0.25
1 green pepper: $0.50
2 celery stalks: $0.25
4 cloves garlic: $0.20
about 1 tablespoon Old Bay: $0.25
2 links Andouille sausage (at $9/lb): $4.50
1 lb fresh okra: $2.00
salt, pepper, cayenne pepper, 1 Tb oil, 4 Tb flour: $0.40
Six brownie points: Gumbo is a hearty stew that combines surf and turf—fatty pork sausage plus chicken plus any seafood you wish. It’s also cursory to thicken it with a roux, aka fat and flour. So it’s a cholesterol-rich food. But the combination of different meats not only creates a complex blend of flavor, but a wide swath of nutrition. You’ll get protein from all the meats but the seafood will add omega-3 fatty acids. Fortunately there’s more healthfulness thanks to all that okra, which is dense in vitamins and minerals.
Five maple leaves: Gumbo makes use of small amounts of flavorful meats like sausage to flavor an entire pot of stuff—like many peasant soups and stews. So there’s no need to go overboard with the sausage or the chicken for that matter. But meat is the main substance of gumbo nowadays, and seafood is often the starring role. So it matters to try to find quality, responsibly caught seafood from a reputable source. It might make more sense then to use squid in this recipe, if you take a look at the Cost Calculator: it’s easy to find sustainably caught squid practically everywhere you are. But getting responsible shrimp—not slave-labor shrimp from Southeast Asia—will set you back a hefty sum. But at least you’re helping out the US wild shrimp economy when you buy Gulf shrimp with the huge pricetag.